How India is making public places cleaner and healthier

This year as India celebrates 75 years of its independence, it is heartening to hear Modi talk about the Swachh Bharat mission in his address to the nation

By Simran Sodhi

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Published: Mon 17 Oct 2022, 8:10 PM

In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, an ambitious campaign to clean up the country and raise public awareness on the topic. Cleanliness, especially in public places, has often been a problem in India and it is no surprise even today to see garbage littered on the roads and people spitting in full public display. Hence, the image of Modi on October 2, 2014, wielding a broom was an important message.

In a country like India, where there are cultural and societal issues intertwined with most public problems, images are as important as policy initiatives. People need to see to believe that there is no shame in picking up a broom and becoming a part of a drive to clean the country. However, there is hesitancy among many people who feel that jobs like cleaning need to be done by people from the lower strata of society. This problem becomes exacerbated when it comes to the cleaning of toilets where even today most people hire others to do the job.

It also is a matter of no pride for the country that manual scavenging continues till date despite laws that prohibit this practice. The practice was banned in 1993 and made a punishable offence under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But it nevertheless continues and deaths of people involved in this are reported frequently. In response to a question raised in Parliament in December last year, the government confirmed that 97.25 per cent of the people involved in manual scavenging belong to the Scheduled Castes, or from the lower castes.

This also leads us to the next set of problems one encounters with hygiene issues in the country. Caste and societal prejudices are harder to break than a simple change to the law. The problem of open defecation is another such case. The government claims that in the first phase of Swachh Bharat Mission, over 110 million toilets were built in rural India from 2014-2019 and that around 600,000 villages across 699 districts of the country have now become open defecation free. But it’s important to note here that the availability of toilets has not automatically led to their usage. A number of reports indicate that many of these toilets are actually being used as storage shelters while people continue to defecate in the open. But at the same time, these problems should not take us away from acknowledging the fact that the Swachh Bharat campaign has been a partial success. The government has finally brought out this topic in a public forum. Hitherto many were reluctant to even discuss these issues.

This year as India celebrates 75 years of its independence, it was heartening to hear Modi talk about the Swachh Bharat mission in his address to the nation. In 2014, during his first address from the iconic Red Fort, the PM announced the launch of the mission. Eight years later, he credited the collective action of India’s people for its success. Keeping politics aside for once, this is a welcome step. We will need to talk about these issues more openly and at available public forums. The need, for instance, to have separate toilets for girls and their direct link to their education needs to be openly discussed.

Money has also been spent to educate the general public via television and movies. One Akshay Kumar movie, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha did the job quite well. It’s not a great movie which, well I don’t think was the intention, but it delivers its message pretty well. It also tries to answer, logically, many of the prejudices people in rural areas harbor about building toilets in their homes. In a country like India, where differences outnumber similarities, it’s never easy to change the status quo of anything. Be it gender equality, cleanliness, or education of the girl child, the pros and cons of any argument vary from culture, caste, family, and religion.

The Swachh Bharat Mission also needs to be looked at from that perspective. It’s an attempt in the right direction, with many steps already taken and many more needed. Being dismissive or getting political about it is no solution. Any party that forms the government will need to deal with these issues and slowly people will get convinced of the need to change habits. A cleaner, healthier India is a victory for all Indians: differences can stay that way.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.


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